GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It’s been a difficult few years for Roy Williams.
October 2014 brought the release of the Wainstein Report, which prompted questions about whether or not the UNC head basketball coach knew about the decades-old academic irregularities in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. Less than two months later, Ted Seagroves, one of Williams’s confidants and closest friends, died of pancreatic cancer.
His mentor and the father he never really had, Dean Smith, passed away in February 2015 after a long bout with dementia, and Bill Guthridge followed three months later, dying of heart failure.
The emotional toll of the years has overshadowed the personal physical pain the 66-year-old has endured. Williams could hardly stand due to bad knees during the 2015-16 season despite having procedures performed the previous summer, and ultimately had replacement surgery for his right knee in May 2016. He still shuffles around a bit, his walk suggesting more years than his body has logged.
During all of this, basketball has served as Williams’s oasis, his reprieve from a world that’s been far too often dark and depressing of late. And then Kris Jenkins happened. Villanova’s game-winner stunned a tight-knit Tar Heel team and left Williams feeling inadequate as a coach in the postgame locker room with no words to take away his players’ hurt.
North Carolina’s march to the national championship on Monday in some ways reflected the obstacles that Williams has encountered in recent years. While there were miscues and mistakes, pitfalls and disappointments, the Tar Heels found a way to persevere, time and time again. There was the 12-0 run to close out Arkansas in Greenville followed by Luke Maye’s dagger against Kentucky in Memphis. There were those offensive rebounds in the final 5.8 seconds against Oregon in the Final Four, and then the 8-0 spurt against Gonzaga to clinch the program’s sixth national title.
Williams is responsible for half of those titles, one more than Smith and more than all but five other coaches in college basketball history. He’s one of only three coaches to lead his team to the national title game six times and he’s the only one to win a game in 27 consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
Monday’s win was his 100th NCAA Tournament game, and his 76 wins are more than all but six programs have across the country. During his 14 years at UNC, Williams is 42-10 in the NCAA Tournament, 33-4 as a No. 1 seed, 4-1 in the Final Four and 3-1 in national title games.
Williams is not a big stats guy, though. He loves to win and he likes to hold up trophies and nail surfboards to his walls, but ask him about comparisons to Smith and he will shy away from such talk, every time.
“I don't think Roy Williams should ever be put in the same sentence with Dean Smith, I really don't,” the Hall of Fame coach said after UNC defeated Gonzaga, 71-65. “I think Coach was the best there's ever been on the court. And he was an even better person. And so it's a little staggering…
“But I really don't know what to say. I mean, because that is -- I'm very, very lucky. I'm doing what I've always wanted to do, is to coach kids and trying to get them to have a common goal and make sacrifices. And it's No. 3. But they've all been fantastic, and I've been very fortunate.”
The adversity of the past 30 months could have weighed too heavily on Williams’s emotional psyche. Instead, the heartache and criticism seemed to strengthen his resolve, which is how this 2016-17 Tar Heel team will forever be remembered: determined and demanding of redemption.